The Real Missing Votes

Friday, December 15, 2000 - 12:00
In their intense coverage of the election debacle in Florida, the media managed to miss one of the most disturbing political stories there. They focused almost entirely on the controversy over how and whether to count all the votes. As a result, they overlooked the fact that most of the votes cast for president there did not really count at all. Most of the votes by Floridians didn't count because they were cast for candidates who eventually lost. They are what political scientists called "wasted votes" votes that don't contribute to the election of an official. Large numbers of wasted votes are an inherent result of the winner-take-all approach used by most states to allocate their electoral votes. In the case of Florida, a majority of the voters (51%) actually cast votes for either Gore or Nader, but all of those votes were wasted. The majority won no representation in the Electoral College. Their votes were no more effective than if they hadn't voted at all. As a result, George Bush, who won less than a majority of the vote, won all the states Electoral College votes hardly what you could call a fair outcome.

The media largely ignored this unrepresentative result because wasted votes are so common in our election system that we hardly ever think about them. But the fact is that this denial of representation is neither inevitable nor necessary. For example, the constitution allows states to divide their electoral votes proportionally; allocating those votes according to the percentage of the popular vote won by each candidate. Florida could have given 12 of its 25 electoral votes to Bush, 12 to Gore, and 1 to Nader. In this way, virtually all the votes cast by Floridians would have counted and the electoral votes would have been distributed much more fairly.

This problem of wasted votes and unrepresentative election results goes far beyond the Electoral College. We use the same problematic winner-take-all system to elect virtually all of our local, state, and federal legislatures. In all of these elections, wasted votes not only deny representation to large numbers of voters, they also discourage turnout. If you are a Democrat in a predominantly Republican district or a Republican in a Democratic district, or a third party supporter in any district, then you know your vote will be wasted and you have little incentive to go to the polls.

Wasted votes also ultimately undermine the right of our political leaders to rule. Consider, for example, the congressional elections of 1998. Voter turnout was only about 40%. But given the many wasted votes, only about 25% of the eligible voters cast votes that actually counted toward the election of a winning candidate. And the Republicans who ended up in control of the House of Representatives won only a little over half of those votes. So legislation passed by the House was fashioned by officials directly elected by only about 15% of the eligible voters not exactly an overwhelming mandate to govern.

Most other Western democracies use proportional representation (PR) for their legislative elections, and so they don't suffer nearly as much from this problem of wasted votes. PR ensures that only about 10%-15% of the votes are wasted, significantly lower than in the U.S. These elections use large, multimember districts where, say, 5 or 10 legislators are elected at a time. In a ten-member district, if the Democrats win 50% of the vote, they get 5 of the 10 seats. If Republicans win 40% of the vote, they receive 4 seats; and if the Greens win 10% of the vote, they get one seat. This approach not only dramatically increases the number of votes that count, it also produces much more accurate representation of all parties in the legislature. For that reason, many election systems experts consider proportional representation elections much more democratic and representative than our winner-take-all approach.

So the lesson from Florida is not only that we need to get rid of our antiquated and malfunctioning punch-card machines, but also that we need to consider getting rid of our antiquated and malfunctioning winner-take-all election system. We should take a serious look at alternative electoral systems that have to potential to make virtually all of our votes count and that produce the most democratic election results.

Douglas J. Amy is a professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College. His latest book is "Behind the Ballot Box: A Citizens Guide to Voting Systems" from Praeger Publishing.